The Syrian-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) has fundamentally misinterpreted its authority" with respect to crop germplasm it holds in trust on behalf of the United Nations, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). In a letter sent to RAFI's Executive Director, Pat Mooney, on January 26th, ICARDA's Director-General, Prof. Dr Adel El-Beltagy, admitted that the Centre had willingly allowed a number of Australian institutes to apply for Plant Breeder's Rights (a form of plant patent) on varieties the Centre holds under a trusteeship agreement with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.
"The trust agreement was signed in 1994," Mooney charges, "It specifically prohibits ICARDA and its sister centres from allowing any form of intellectual property claim on the crop germplasm. Yet, in 1995, ICARDA signed agreements with Australian institutes and agribusinesses making it possible for them to claim monopoly control over the varieties." "Its a clear breach of the trust agreement," RAFI's Edward Hammond adds, "We hope it was done out of ignorance or poor judgement and not out of malice." ICARDA is one of the institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Following receipt of ICARDA's letter, including excerpts from its material transfer agreement with the Australians, RAFI e-mailed ICARDA advising them of the trust violation. "The Director-General replied immediately saying that they were reviewing the situation and would get back to us on February 2nd - after the celebration of Ramadan." says Hammond. "We agreed to wait until the end of their work day today. Since ICARDA has failed to reply, we are obliged to inform FAO, CGIAR, and ICARDA's germplasm exchange partners of the Centre's irresponsible actions. ICARDA has failed to comply with the FAO trust. It must immediately notify the Australians that it did not have the legal right to permit the claims."
RAFI has notified the FAO Legal Counsel and the Chair of CGIAR of the breach of agreement as well as the Australian Government's Plant Breeders' Rights Office (PBRO). "However, it is for ICARDA and FAO to formally cancel the monopoly claims in Australia," Mooney notes.
Chickpea Connection: The Australian "patent" problems surfaced over the December holidays when RAFI confirmed that two Australian parties had applied for PBR certificates on seed samples provided by , ICARDA's India-based counterpart. RAFI immediately contacted ICRISAT, which told the Australians to abandon their claims on two chickpea varieties. The applicants, and did so. "ICRISAT acted correctly," Mooney explains, "the Australians breached their agreement and misled the institute as to their intentions. ICARDA, conversely, seems to have encouraged violations of the FAO trust agreement." According to RAFI, a Canadian-based rural advocacy organization, ICARDA gave permission to institutes in the States of Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia to file claims on the crop varieties. "This is no doubt embarrassing for all concerned," Mooney concedes, "but they really have no moral alternative."
More Questionable Claims: RAFI is examining 47 plant varieties which appear to come from abroad but are under one or another form of exclusive monopoly claim in Australia. Many of these materials appear to have come directly from farmers' fields from Panama and the Andes to North and South Africa and the Middle East.
Now What? "Our only responsible policy option, given ICARDA's unexplainable silence, is to ask FAO to suspend ICARDA's trust access to the germplasm and to warn governments that ICARDA is an unreliable partner in crop germplasm exchange." If the Australians don't abandon their claims? "The same thing," Mooney agrees, "The Australians have no right to the varieties. They did no breeding work. They simply received them from ICARDA." "Australia needs the good will of the international community in order to develop its agriculture," says Hammond, "They don't want to be faced with a crop germplasm embargo."
UN Discussion: The issue will also come before a meeting of more than 150 governments in Rome in mid-June. In the meantime, RAFI is urging all governments to honour the trust agreements with FAO. "Both FAO and CGIAR have shown enormous concern and good will in addressing the problem," Mooney concludes, "ICARDA and the other centres just have to get on board." Edward Hammond concurs, "If the world didn't have the FAO-CGIAR agreement, then nothing could be done to prevent BioPiracy. Because governments are building a multilateral germplasm exchange system with equitable benefit-sharing, there is reason to hope these issues can be solved."